Webinar Report: Working with Vendors: From Cold Calls to Building a Relationship

7 Mar

Guest Post By Kathleen Hogan, Senior Counsel and Director of KM, BMO Financial Group

A recent ILTA webinar addressed an “elephant in the room” for law firm KM.  While we welcome and often rely on vendor expertise, we’re also not always thrilled about receiving cold calls, and nor are we always sure how to navigate these relationships. This post will cover the highlights of the webinar, which aired February 15, with speakers Perry Brock of Ventura Consulting, Joshua Fireman of Fireman and Co. and myself , and hosted by Mara Nickerson, CKO at Osler LLP (Mara is a member of the ILTA KM Peer Group Steering Committee).

We nicknamed the session “Vendors: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” for good reason. Perry (who, it should be noted, did the heavy lifting in creating the slides and throughout most of the session) identified five criteria (financial approach, executive involvement, project management, knowledge transfer, and issue management) that together characterize a relationship as staying on a basic vendor level, or evolving into a partner level. Vendors, for example, see revenue, where partners see opportunity, when looking at the financial approach to a deal. Partners will work collaboratively and proactively, while vendors are disinterested and reactive. We are glad to report that a poll of the audience showed that most firms view their vendors as partners rather than just “vendors”.

We talked about the three phases of onboarding vendors into our firms, from the “blind date” of a cold call or RFP, though “courtship” of evaluating expertise, capabilities and expectations, to “partnership” though contract, execution, and an ongoing symbiotic relationship.  To strengthen these relationships, we identified some best practices:  sharing information and priorities, being open about balancing commitment and competition, relying on vendors to support strategy, build partnerships for the long term, and understanding the vendors’ business. As always, negotiating a “win-win” agreement is best – supporting each other’s value proposition is key.

There may also be a tension within law firms of who “owns” a relationship. While KM might bring a product in the door and run a pilot, it’s IT/IS that will need to support and troubleshoot the product. The vendor should be comfortable with both; all stakeholders must openly discuss and tacitly agree on performance, initiatives, and expectations.

The session acknowledged the reality that vendors are often on the cutting edge of technology development, and KM can rely on vendors to learn about best practices, emerging practices, and even case law (e-discovery is a great example of this). Yet, KM has to balance using vendors as an information source with respecting their time and value. As well, as Mary Abraham noted in her blog, Above and Beyond KM, vendor demos often take up a lot of time with not much tangible value to show for them.

Polls taken during the webinar were telling. Most attendees field 3-5 cold calls a week, and some receive over ten! Clearly, cold call skills are a necessary tool for KMers! Our tips included screening calls and using “do not disturb” so you can be in control of your time and calls and not at the mercy of a cold calling vendor. If you do pick up the phone to find a cold call, let the caller speak for a few moments before simply saying no thank you, or perhaps arranging another time to speak. Always be honest. If you receive a message or email (or LinkedIn) solicitation, close the loop by replying courteously and with honest information.

Thanks to ILTA for the opportunity to develop this topic into a webinar for a wide audience.

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